How La Roux Defied The Odds And Created A Modern Pop Masterpiece
It’s hard to imagine what pop music would look like without La Roux.
At just 21-years old, Elly Jackson achieved her first chart-topping hit.
‘Bulletproof’, the third lead single from British duo La Roux, debuted at number one on the UK Singles Chart. It’s easy to see why: the track was infections, with Jackson’s shrill yet iridescent voice reaching florid levels of excitement as she renounces emotions on the ’80s synthpop sing-a-long.
La Roux, which translates from French as “red-haired one”, centred Jackson, whose fiery quiff became an emblem of her maudlin bubble-gum pop group — which also included writer and producer Ben Langmaid. Their eponymously titled debut album, La Roux, arrived in June 2009.
At the time, pop music overflowed with Balearic influences, blog house, and glo-fi beats — and hits like ‘In For The Kill’, ‘I’m Not Your Toy’, and ‘Quicksand’ sliced through the monotony with reposeful expertise. While artists like Little Boots, Lykke Li, and Ladyhawke stunned with nu-disco flecked indie-pop, La Roux took their underground electroclash-heavy fanfare and challenged the state of mainstream pop.
“I suppose I’ve never really been one of those people who’s quick at anything,” Jackson told The Guardian in 2014. Despite this assertion, La Roux would become of the fastest growing pop acts in modern pop history.
Closer to Kraftwerk than their post-Y2K-era synthpop peers, La Roux managed to capture familiarity while defying the zeitgeist of the time — at least that’s what Jackson thought until they released the record.
“I saw it as extremely trapping, musically, extremely trapped in a zeitgeist that was no longer,” she confessed during a press run in 2014. “How I had presented myself as an artist didn’t have any longevity whatsoever and I was upset at myself for starting my career in that way because it’s not the career that I wanted. I never ever cared about having a number one hit single or anything like that. It’s never the artist I wanted to be.”
Ironically, it was their instantly recognisable image, sound, and number one hit that propelled La Roux into global recognition. Following success in the UK, their record was released three months later in the US to the tune of critical acclaim, ostensibly leading to their first Grammy win for Best Electronic/Dance Album. It was La Roux’s world, we were just living in it.
At the time, acclaimed songwriters like Max Martin, Ester Dean, and Denniz PoP were behind pop’s biggest hits, but Jackson and Langmaid opted to write their own songs. Although the pair’s wry descriptions of love and heartbreak were refreshing, it was their flair for imagery that made songs like ‘Bulletproof’ and ‘In For The Kill’ timeless hits.
A modern comparison can be made with Billie Eilish, who only writes with her brother Finneas O’Connell, and has also turned improbable hits into chart-toppers. For artists like Carly Rae Jepsen and Charli XCX, and even PC Music’s SOPHIE, who indulge in pairing maudlin lyrics with ’80s synthpop and cartoonish melodies, La Roux remains the blueprint.
“I hang my hopes out on the line/ Will they be ready for you in time,” Jackson sings on ‘In For The Kill’. “If you leave them out too long/ They’ll be withered by the sun”. Her wry nonchalance as she compares love to hanging out the washing rings with indelible timelessness, slipping seamlessly into the feminist rhetoric of pop in 2019.
It’s hard to imagine what pop music would look like without La Roux. Their DIY-production stood at odds with the clinical, squeaky clean pop of the time, bringing the underground into the mainstream, making way for Ellie Goulding, Kesha and even Lady Gaga.
Despite this, Jackson is still unconvinced of La Roux’s legacy. “I was definitely slightly disappointed that I fit in as much as I did because when we started making that [debut] album, the sound certainly wasn’t the kind of thing that was on the radio — and by the time we released it, it had become more of a ‘thing,’” she explained. “It put me in an area that I didn’t really want to be in, that chart-topping pop area. I don’t mind if you top the charts by being different, but I guess that most people did see that as being different.”
It’s hard to imagine what pop music would look like without La Roux.
Jackson’s iconoclastic nature got her into all sorts of trouble. Months following the release, she remarked that women in music were becoming bland “There are a few strong girls, but there are a lot who are not all that strong. There have always been strong women in the charts. It comes in waves,” she told The Daily Record. “I feel music’s in a transitional period. Half of it wants to go one way and half of it wants to go the other. There’s a fair amount of bland music out there.”
Her penchant to defy trends eventually led the British musician to work and later feud with music’s most divisive maverick, Kanye West. After recording vocals for his 2010 Grammy Award-winning track ‘All Of The Lights’, Jackson struck a deal with West, to lay down a verse for a remix of ‘In For The Kill’. The unlikely pairing, which led to an all-out Twitter war, also saw Jackson’s former bandmate Langmaid pick sides.
When asked about her collaboration with West in an interview with the Sunday Times, Jackson responded, “No, fuck him! Nobody likes him.” Langmaid took to Twitter, declaring “Love @kanyewest Love you man!”, followed by a series of four photographs taken from West’s Instagram account.
Riding high off her success, La Roux commanded the room with the invincibility of a rising newcomer. Melding the magic of The Human League with the steely reproach of a bubbling feminist undercurrent, Jackson created a masterpiece of rebellion akin to her nemesis Kanye West.
Ten years on hits like ‘Bulletproof’ still inspire a sing-a-long, but the proof is in the album tracks. Even on the backend of the 12-track album, reading titles ‘Tigerlily’, ‘As If By Magic’ and ‘Growing Pains’ stir photographic memories of their melodies, Jackson’s lilt and the taste of electroclash.
Melding the magic of The Human League with the steely reproach of a bubbling feminist undercurrent, Jackson created a masterpiece of rebellion akin to her nemesis Kanye West.
Despite Jackson’s own reservations of her debut, not even she could top it. Trouble In Paradise, La Roux’s solo follow-up, promised “effortlessness” and a newfound maturity.
“Sometimes we’d sit there for hours, listening back to a song and going ‘But it’s not effortless.’ So we’d do it again and again until it sounded like we’d done it in our fucking sleep,” she told NME. “We let ourselves be cheeky, let ourselves not give a damn what anyone else thought.”
Yet the manufactured ease sounded clunky, like a former shadow of the artist’s once refulgent self. In the five years it took Jackson to release the record, she lost her voice due to a throat problem in 2011.
After a slew of harsh reviews, La Roux invariably slipped into obscurity, returning only to field questions about her debut album, brushing them away in hopes of a new future. It was truly a once in a lifetime record — one of those strange blips on the radar that will never be repeated.
The music industry is a cruel game. Jackson may have missed the long-lasting career she wanted, but she achieved a legacy that’s blossomed a new era of pop, a triumph achieved by a rare few.
Kish Lal is a writer and critic based in New York City. She is on Twitter.